Australia: the 1960s Down Under

With Southeast Asia in flux and eventually evacuated by the British and the Americans at the end of the 1960s, the countries of Australia and New Zealand adjusted as best they could. Each was outside our Asian arc of Iran to Japan (see South Asia) but they acted as an anchor for the region in the Southern Hemisphere, and this deserve attention on our survey of the region.

In 1945, nations directly involved in the Second World War struggled to readjust to peoples displaced, killed, wounded; to cities and farms destroyed.  On the periphery of the Pacific action, the country-continent of AUSTRALIA emerged with a feeling of anxiety and dread as the war exposed a national vulnerability. The fall of invincible Singapore in 1942 was followed by the collapse of British Malaya (Malaysia) and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Japanese naval forces had ravaged Australian shipping; air force units had devastated the northern city of Darwin and bombed targets throughout Queensland state. A Japanese fleet heading for New Guinea early in the war pointed to the danger of a Japanese invasion of Australia and was stopped only by the intervention of the American navy at the Battle of the Coral Sea.  Australia’s historical and customary protector, Great Britain, was unable to help her since commitments in Europe, North Africa, and the Atlantic sapped resources of all kinds for survival of the home islands themselves. Like Britain, the Netherlands proved powerless to defend its sprawling oil-rich East Indies (Indonesia) which the Japanese captured with lightning efficiency, and Dutch colonists fled by the thousands for refuge in Australia.

Part of wartime and postwar insecurity for Australia was its small population of seven million, compared, for example, to Imperial Japan’s total in 1940 of ten times this number. For its size, Australia was virtually uninhabited. The conviction grew that immigration restrictions put in place in 1901 to keep Australia “an outpost of the British race” best be revisited and reformed; and in the 1950s, the so-called White Australia Policy was replaced with the slogan “Populate or Perish.” At first, the program mimicked earlier migration campaigns – in the 1920s for example – and showed a preference for migrants from the British Isles.  In the period of 1949 to 1966, though, successive Canberra governments expanded the policy to encompass refugees from outside Britain, including large numbers of Jews for the first time, from southern, eastern and central European states such as Germany, Italy, and Yugoslavia. In 1966 the White Australia Policy was completely undone, and non-European migrants surged from Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Vietnam seeking freedom and opportunity from turbulent Asia. By the numbers, the year 1969-70 was the immigration peak in the years after World War II with 185,000 entrants and tipped the Australian population to over 12 million.  And not just outside peoples. Australians changed its posture on its own peoples as well.  By a 90% majority, Australians elected to change its constitution in 1967 so its aboriginal peoples could vote.

Immigration was one of the great themes of Australia in the 1960s needed to fuel a sustained economic boom that took place after the war to 1974, and saw Australian trade agreements expand regionally and internationally. The giant mineral exports we see to China today from Australia began with Australia’s post-war trade with Japan. In the areas of coal, iron ore and other energy-related resources, Australia’s onetime enemy, Japan, replaced Britain as Australia’s major trading partner. Prices for the country’s traditional exports of wool and wheat remained high and production expanded; manufacturing, including new-car production with General Motors, did well behind tariff walls.

The 1960s era saw the growth of the great coastal cities of Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney (see the “Opera House” in 1960s Architecture) and, importantly, the inland infrastructure to support them. In 1949 Australia began the largest engineering project in its history called the Snowy Mountains Scheme. It was a development effort that covered 2,000 square miles of the country’s inland southeast, the purpose of which – like the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States – was to create energy for the states of New South Wales, Victoria, and the Canberra Capital Territory. Centered on the Snowy River and its many tributaries, the Murray-Darling Basin, and the Murrumbidgee River, the Scheme was an undertaking of enormous proportions eventually consisting of sixteen dams, seven power stations and hundreds of miles of aqueducts, railroads, tunnels, and service roads.  The heart of construction took place during our period – from 1961 and 1970 – and by the time it was complete in 1972 it had employed 100,000 people from 30 countries – many of which had just arrived to Australia as immigrants. Some considered the Scheme a symbol of the country’s postwar boom; for others it denoted the birth of a newly-multicultural land. Today it is a tourist destination with its own museum, a place of energy and environmental experimentation, and indeed the reason why the coastal cities have been able to grow as they have. Interestingly, for our period incidently, the design and construction of the Snowy Mountains Scheme deployed the country’s first transistor-powered computer between 1960 to 1967.

Sir Robert Menzies,
Australian Prime Minister

But it was perhaps in foreign affairs that Australia changed most broadly in the 1960s, and from these changes, Australia has not wavered. Under the remarkable primeministership of Sir Robert Menzies (in office 1949-1966), Australia remained a staunchly loyal British ally and more. Australia supported links to the British Commonwealth, publically honored the monarchy, hosted British nuclear tests in 1952, committed forces to the Malayan Emergency, and was the only Commonwealth country to support Britain over Suez in 1956. But in the 1950s Australia began to share its traditional loyalty for Britain with the United States as the Menzies government saw Australia as part of a “triple alliance.” As part of this new alignment, Canberra signed the ANZUS (Australia-New Zealand-US) security treaty in 1951 and SEATO in 1954, and committed to the Korean War. Indonesian ambitions flared under Sukarno and Australia invited the United States navy to built the first of several radar stations in the early 1960s, and used American Redstone rockets to put WRESAT (Weapons Research Establishment) satellites into orbit for defense coordination with ground stations.

Cementing a closer American relationship was part of Australia’s commitment to the defense of South Vietnam. This was at variance with the non-involvement of Britain which saw no pressing security interest in Southeast Asia (and was in financial difficulties.) Both Menzies and his successor Harold Holt began to see the US, not Britain, as its key defense ally. Not only in resources and power, the United States was aligned with Australia ideologically. Both Menzies and Holt put stock in the domino theory, Cold War containment, and were hawks in their anti-communism. In 1966, Holt rode to a landslide victory on a platform of standing tall in Southeast Asia. “All the way with LBJ” was the theme, and between 1963 and 1972, almost 60,000 Australian personnel served in Vietnam, and her experience mirrored the American one both in its popularity and its later disillusionment.

Leaning toward the United States became even more sensible for Australia after 1967 when Britain declared its withdrawal from territories east of Suez. When Britain finally entered the European Common Market in 1973, the American option became decisive. Australia’s privileged trade status within the Commonwealth sterling area vanished. It became like any other country with something to sell to Britain – like Japan, Botswana or Chile – and ever since, Australia has charted its own path, albeit as a close Western ally.

Preparing for a new course during our era, Australia changed the way it did business – from the (Australian) pound to a decimal system of dollars and cents; and prepared for new transportation efficiencies to move its population around. The first uniform gauge railroad across the country (Perth to Sydney) was completed in 1969. Indeed our decade reverberates from “Down Under” today, not just because of the Snowy Mountain Scheme or Vietnam or money or railways. After all, the popular actor Hugh Jackman, the future prime minister Julia Gullard, and the Bee Gees all came to Australia as small children (“Ten Pound Poms”) under the new migration policies of the 1960s.

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